The similarities are, in fact, striking.
Jesse Wallin was a shy sophomore with the Red Deer Rebels when they hooked up with the favoured Swift Current Broncos in the opening round of the 1995-96 Western Hockey League season playoffs. The Broncos finished 16 points ahead of the Rebels in the Central Division standings, but bowed in six games to a determined, upset-minded Red Deer squad.
See where we’re going with this?
Flash forward 14 years and Wallin is the head coach of a Rebels team that was 16 points back of their first-round post-season opponent — the Saskatoon Blades — when the regular season concluded.
Can the Rebels duplicate the unexpected early playoff success of the ‘95-96 edition? Wallin sees some definite parallels between the two teams, which is a positive sign in itself.
“We’re definitely the underdog going into this series and we were that season as well,” said the former WHL all-star defenceman, who conducted a practice session this morning at the Centrium prior to the club’s departure for Saskatoon, where the first two games of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final will be played Saturday and Sunday at the Credit Union Centre.
“But at this time of year anything can happen. I know we’ve said if before, but the slate really is wiped clean and it’s a fresh start. The camaraderie in your dressing room at this time of year really becomes a factor and this group here reminds me a bit of that year in the sense that it’s a bunch of guys who care for one another.
“This is really a tight-knit group and I think it’s a group that really wants to succeed. There’s a number of guys in the dressing room with something to prove and again, it’s just a time of year that’s exciting because anything can happen. Our attitude is we know we’re the underdogs, and that puts a lot of pressure on Saskatoon. They’re expected to win and they’re built to win. We have to go in there and play our game and make it hard on them. We feel that if we do that we’ve got a chance to win the series.”
The Rebels, despite the presence of talented forwards Willie Coetzee, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Landon Ferraro and Andrej Kudrna, were among the league’s lowest-scoring teams this season. But it’s a team that can limit the other club’s opportunities with a solid work ethic and despite their relative youth, the players remain secure in their belief that they can beat anybody.
“We just want to go in there and play with confidence and play to our identity, which is (that of) a hard-working team that’s solid defensively and tough to play against,” said Wallin.
“We’ll give ourselves a chance if we play that way.”
The Rebels head coach doesn’t foresee himself delivering a motivational speech at any point in the series. He firmly believes that players should be able to motivate themselves with so much on the line.
“As coaches, we play a part in it. But certainly as a player this is time of year when you want to prove yourself,” said Wallin. “And as time goes on, as the playoffs progress, you have more opportunities to prove yourself. By the time you get to the end of the year everyone is watching you.”
The Rebels lack the balanced scoring punch, experience and muscle of the Blades, so do they honestly have a chance against the nation’s ninth-ranked major junior team?
“It really does come down to how bad you want it and in a lot of cases that’s what carries you through the playoffs,” said Wallin. “It’s not always the most experienced and most talented team that’s going to succeed. It’s the team that wants it a little bit more.
“Certainly if you have the edge in some of those departments it gives you an advantage, but at the end of the day your commitment to your team and your will to succeed can get you over the top.”
Can the Rebels pull the upset? Absolutely.
But is it a probable scenario for a team that is likely a year away from peaking? That might be too much to ask.
Prediction: Saskatoon in six.